The right selection of background music in your store can make the difference between keeping your customers comfortable and engaged or restless and bored.

But playing that music isn’t a simple case of loading the perfect playlist. Many store owners in the retail industry wonder if they can play or share Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, or other music services on their premises, and the answer is complicated.

Can I Play Licensed Music In My Business?

Can I play clean music from Spotify at work? The immediate answer to this question is “no.”

Even if you have a Spotify premium account (different from Spotify business), even if the MP3s on your music player were legally bought (off Amazon, Google Play, or through another provider), or even if you have a CD player and are playing songs off your own collection, playing them in your place of business is illegal.

The reason behind this being illegal is that when licensed music is played in a commercial space, it is played with the intention of creating an experience for customers that is conducive to the interests of the business (getting customers to pay money for the goods and services on offer). The business gains from the music being played. For that reason, the law says that the creators of the music should get a piece of the profit being made.

The reality is that almost all the music you might want to play in your business is owned by someone. The songwriters, performers, and record labels have a copyright claim to the music, which determines when and how – and by whom – that music can be played. Copyright law also stipulates that when the music is played in certain public or global spaces, the copyright holders must be well compensated. This supersedes legal purchase of the song (either in a digital or CD copy), so simply having the album, buying it off Amazon, or streaming it through Spotify is not enough.

Companies like Spotify make this very clear in their terms and conditions. Spotify’s website clarifies that a personal account does not allow the user to play songs in public spaces, like stores, clubs, restaurants, and bars. An individual account allows users to stream music privately without any intention of using the music to boost their business. As with most terms of use, agreeing to them is the user’s acknowledgment that they will use the personal account within the specified boundaries.

An alternative to violating these terms is the Spotify Business account. As a commercial license subscription, it gives users the legal coverage to stream and download internet-based music through the Spotify Business platform, and to play it to anyone within the business’s premises. This is one way that Spotify itself makes money. While over 100 million people use the free version of the platform, the company receives payment from just 30 million people to unlock additional features. As a result, the company has been bleeding money because of how expensive its licensing agreements with record labels are. Collecting monthly fees from businesses helps to offset the exorbitant deals it has with the publishers of some of the biggest artists in the world.

Having a Spotify for Business account ensures that anybody who has a copyright claim to the music – the artists, the record label, or both – is fairly compensated every time their music is used in a professional setting. The Spotify for Business cost (also known as Soundtrack Your Brand) is $35.00 per month for the base plan. Other music streaming services, like Pandora with Pandora for Business, have their own business arrangement, and it works in much the same way. Users with a Spotify business license pay a monthly flat fee to access and play songs, safe in the knowledge that the respective services have arrangements with the necessary performing rights organizations that disburse royalties to labels. Through the use of a Spotify for Business license, there will never be any accusation that a store is unlawfully playing licensed music.

The Role of PROs

Performing rights organizations are groups like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, SESAC (originally the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers), and Broadcast Music, Inc. These organizations represent the rights of songwriters and music publishers to publicly perform the copyrighted works they created. This means that only people with the necessary copyright can play or perform those songs in public; everyone else has to purchase a license to do so. Big distribution platforms like Spotify have their own next level arrangements with PROs, which simplifies things for business owners who want to stream music in their stores. Just having a Spotify Business account grants you access to the repertoire of songs covered by the respective PROs.

The language in the terms of use agreement can seem complicated, but the choice of words is key. “Personal” and “noncommercial” prohibit the streaming music from being played in a work environment, especially if the intention of the music is to benefit the business. Playing music in this environment constitutes a public performance, which is forbidden by both the user agreement with Spotify and respective streaming services, and federal copyright law.

Specifically, U.S. copyright law states that music can be considered to be “publicly performed” when the music is played in a location that is either open to the public or a location where “a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” An example of this is using free music streaming at school (non-educationally), which is a public place and therefore needs a commercial license.

The Terms of Using Licensed Music

By these terms, music played in a business has to be done so with the appropriate Spotify commercial license. Even if the business owner legally bought the music being played, the setting determines the intent. You are unlikely to argue that playing a Spotify playlist to people you do not know, in your place of work, constitutes personal use rather than Spotify commercial use.

Additionally, legally purchasing the music being played is not legally owning that music. As The Guardian explains, a consumer simply buys the right to play the particular song per the terms set by the copyright holder; for individual consumers, those terms are almost exclusively for the song or album to be played in a private (or, at least, a nonpublic) setting. Attempting to use that same song in a public setting, like Spotify for retail stores or Spotify for hotels, is a violation of the terms of purchase, akin to using a rental car as a personal vehicle.

The public performance clause in the copyright law includes, but isn’t limited to, streaming music from digital sources, playing MP3 files from a music player, CDs, music videos on TV, and music played by a DJ.

Location within the business is key. A business owner could have their personal Spotify or Pandora account playing music in a breakroom, away from the public. The case could be made that this use of music is not meant for customers, and thus has no impact on the business’s financials. However, playing music in a space where customers can hear the music will likely open the business up to scrutiny.

Pandora’s Example

Such is the risk for unlawfully playing streaming music in a business environment that the Richmond Times-Dispatch advises that unless owners have purchased a Pandora business account, they shouldn’t even open Pandora at their stores.

From Pandora’s perspective, they see the allure in allowing a business owner access to the wealth of copyrighted songs. DMX, the marketing firm that partnered with Pandora to bring streaming music to stores, told Rolling Stone that “music plays a vital role in the experience that someone has” in a retail or service environment, covering everything from bowling alleys to gyms, from spas to coffee shops. Data shows that having the right songs or playlists can make customers spend more time in stores, help increase the chances of them spending money, recommending the location to friends, and leaving a good review on social media. Given how customers are often spoiled for choice and make quick and first-impression judgements about a business, it is a matter of survival for businesses to appeal to the general public on every level. The choice ofmusic for business (and the legal right to play that music) is much more than just background noise.

What About YouTube?

YouTube presents a new set of questions and challenges. While the content on Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, or Amazon is uploaded directly by the music publishers, anyone with an internet account can create a YouTube profile and upload licensed music to that profile, and anyone else can stream music off that account.

Can you still play music off an unofficial YouTube channel? According to YouTube’s terms of service, the people who upload licensed music without official permission from the copyright holder are in violation of their user agreement, which specifically forbids them from “transmitting, broadcasting [and] displaying” any content that is licensed by another party. To that end, YouTube is no different than a television and a radio station, subject to the same restrictions and regulations regarding the transmission of licensed materials.

Thus, having a YouTube channel playing in the background of your business still falls afoul of copyright laws.

Regardless of the unofficial nature of the YouTube channel itself (or the misguided “No copyright infringement intended” disclaimers that users include with their videos), the music it is playing should still be licensed.

What About SoundCloud?

Another service that is primarily driven by content provided by users is SoundCloud. The streaming services describes itself as “a platform for creators,” but still expects all users to abide by copyright laws. The site makes it clear that while users are more than welcome to upload their own music, they will need the permission of copyright owners to upload licensed music even if the user is the songwriter, but a publisher holds the right to the song itself. SoundCloud advises that “the best way to avoid copyright infringement is to ensure that you don’t use anything created by anyone else,” and this definition of “use” also covers playing music through SoundCloud for a public audience.

The rest of the language is on par with what other digital and streaming providers say about using their respective service. Users have to get a license from the copyright owner in order to (a) upload a licensed song to their channel and (b) play the song in a non-private setting.

Business to Consumer vs. Business

In general, services like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, iTunes, SoundCloud, Pandora, and are music platforms for individual consumers (business to consumer). Typically, they are free or have a reasonably flat monthly fee allowing users unlimited listening. This can confuse users into thinking that they (the users) “own” the right to do whatever they want with the music they are getting. And users do have a lot of things they can do with that music; they can stream it in their car, play it at family gatherings, or listen to it at the gym or on the bus.

But playing music in a public business setting, over multiple speakers, with the intention of creating a welcoming environment for the general public to spend their time, is the function of a business-to-business arrangement, and this needs the appropriate licensing. Spotify and Pandora have the necessary deals with performing rights organizations, meaning that a business owner can simply pay an extra fee every month to have access to literally thousands of songs to play for customers. Additionally, this also protects the business from accusations of copyright infringement.

For services that do not have deals with PROs, a license can be obtained from one or all of them, which entails paying the PRO directly. There are also streaming services that are built exclusively for business use. This achieves much the same effect: legally playing music for customers in a place of business.